“So, sweetie,” she said, grating the fresh mozzarella, “what’s going on with you? Any new flames I should know about?” Before things had gone south with Nathan, she’d spent months pressing me for grandkids. Apparently, it had been long enough since the end of that relationship for her to start pressing me again.

“Um . . .” I hesitated, unsure how to explain what I had with Gavin—or if I even wanted to.

It was one thing to tell Bethany about every twist and turn in my new roller-coaster relationship. She was worried for me, to be sure, but in the end, she was always supportive of what I wanted. My mom, on the other hand? She had absolutely no qualms about letting me know when she thought I was making a huge mistake.

In that moment, I wished I’d had more time to prepare for this conversation, to practice what I wanted to say. Because, dear God, how did you explain someone like Gavin to your mom?

“Oh, there is someone, isn’t there? I can see it on your face. Who’s the lucky guy, sweetheart? Where did you two meet?” My mom put the mozzarella down at that point, preparing herself for the prospect of grandchildren.

Shit, shit, shit.

“Uh . . . yeah. We, uh, met at a coffee shop,” I mumbled, eager to get through this conversation as quickly and painlessly as possible.

“A coffee shop? Wow, how romantic. Did they have some jazz playing on the radio? That stuff always puts me in the mood.”

“Oh my God, Mom, ew. Please don’t make this about your sex life.”

“I’m just saying. And stop changing the subject. Who is he? What’s his name? What does he do for a living?”

My mom’s incessant questions and the heat from the oven had started to make me sweat. I fanned myself for a moment before deciding to pull my sweater over my head, grateful for the tank top I had on underneath. As I raised my arms, the hem of my tank top got caught on the fabric of the sweater, exposing my abdomen for a moment before I quickly pulled my tank back down.

I sighed. “His name is Gavin, and before you say anything, I want you to know that I really—”

But before I could finish, my mom was rushing to my side and lifting the hem of my tank top. “What is this?” she whispered, running her fingertips lightly over the bruises on my side.

Shit.

“I’m okay, really,” I said, but it was already too late.

With her brows knit closely together, she examined my bruises further, ignoring my efforts to cover them back up with my shirt. She pressed her fingers a little more firmly on one, causing me to step back and wince in pain.

Mom looked at me, her eyes wide and angry, and shook her head slightly. “Who did this to you?” she murmured, searching my face for answers.

“No one, Mom. I, uh . . . I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? How could you not know?”

“Really, Mom, it’s not a big deal.”

“Not a big deal? How can you say that to me? After what that monster did to you . . . I thought we were done with this. I thought we’d moved on from men who hit us and hurt us and treat us like nothing.” She was pacing now, rubbing her hands over her forearms, her face pinched.

“Mom, what? No, Gavin’s not like that.”

“Not like that? Sweetheart, look at you. Look at your ribs! I swear, I don’t know how you keep finding these men. Your father and I raised you to respect yourself more than this, Emma. We paid for your therapist. I can’t believe this is happening again.”

“Gavin is nothing like Nathan, Mom,” I said, raising my voice more than I meant to.

“Really, Emma? Nothing? Then, please, paint me a picture. What does he do? How does he spend his time? Or is that not something he’d want you to tell me?” My mother threw her hands in the air with each question.

“He . . . he runs his own business,” I stammered, rubbing my hand over the back of my neck.

“His own business, huh? And what is he selling with this business?”

Damn. How did she always know just the right question to make everything unravel? Maybe it was mother’s intuition, but whatever it was, I wasn’t comfortable with explaining his company to her.

“He and his brothers . . . they run a, uh, an escort service of sorts,” I said, and my mother scoffed and rolled her eyes. “But it’s not what you think, Mom, it’s not like that. He’s not like that.”

“Oh, so he’s a pimp? What, is he your sugar daddy, or whatever you call it? Is that how you’ve been able to afford all these renovations?” She gestured around her wildly, pointing at all the work I’d done like I’d sacrificed my soul to do it. “I don’t know how you got yourself into another one of these messes. Your father and I have tried so hard to help you. I don’t know if I can handle standing by and watching you get hurt again.” She started gathering her things, sliding her arms through the sleeves of her coat and throwing her purse over her shoulder.

“Mom, please, just let me explain,” I begged, tears stinging my eyes.

“Maybe another time. This is just . . . too familiar at the moment,” she said, pausing at the front door. “I just want you to be safe, Emma.” With that, she left, closing the door quietly behind her.

The oven chimed to signal it was adequately preheated, but I wasn’t hungry anymore.

I struggled to keep my tears from streaming down my cheeks, and the lump in my throat was getting harder to swallow. I turned the oven off and decided to get some more restoration work done, whether my mom approved of how I got the money for it or not.

Polishing the pewter sconce with an old rag, I pushed a strand of hair out of my face and huffed out a deep breath. I was torn between feeling grateful for the distraction the work provided, and feeling overwhelmed at all the repairs my old brownstone needed. Moving from one stressful issue to the next used to be the kind of thing that centered me, reminded me of how small one problem was in relation to the rest of my life.

But now? Almost everything in my life was stressful, and focusing on a different problem every hour really wasn’t helping.

I was already dreading the call I would get from my father the next day, demanding an explanation for my mother’s early return home. I had to find a way to calm my parents down so I could explain who Gavin was and how important he was quickly becoming to me. It would be a tricky conversation, made even harder by the unanswered questions even I still had. Maybe if my parents could just meet him, they would see how wrong my mother’s assumptions about him were. I knew it. I felt it.

On the surface, sure, the two men seemed to share some alpha-male tendencies. But if you dug a little deeper?

Gavin and Nathan couldn’t be more different.

Chapter Fifteen

Gavin

The minute Emma was granted a clean bill of health, Cooper packed up his things and left. It was an unceremonious departure—he didn’t even bother to stop by my door before he’d gone. But when the door shut behind him, there was no doubting things were different around the office.

Quinn never said a word about the change, never chastised me for my actions or accused me of pushing Cooper out, but I still felt a twinge of guilt every time I thought of my younger brother. For Emma, sacrifices had had to be made. It was just unfortunate that Cooper was one of them.

Now, though, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was for the best. There was a new weight on my shoulders, one I had no idea how to lift. It made me wonder if it might be beneficial for everyone I loved to stay as far away from them as possible. But he wasn’t gone for good, he’d made that clear—he was just scouting out some possible locations. A decision on where he’d end up would come later.

I pushed the thought away, determined to deal with that another day. Tonight wasn’t about Cooper or my problems. Now that Emma was well again, I wanted to take her out to celebrate.

I’d already pulled out all my favorite stops with her before. The vineyard, the helicopter, whisking her away to a beach getaway—well, sort of. That trip was actually for work. Everything I’d planned for her so far had been an invitation into my world, so this date had to be about hers.

What the fuck do bookworms like to do besides read? I racked my brain for options.



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